Hope for the future

Lissabon, 18 maart 2011

Dear all,

It feels like an honor to be the last speaker at this conference. Don’t worry, after this very exhausting conference and the theoretical debate we’ve just witnessed, I will not bore you with a very long talk and I also promise to avoid mentioning the name of Karl Marx.

Before I start my short talk I want to thank a number of people without who this conference would be impossible to run so smoothly. Of course Raquel Varela and I have done a lot of work, but the others were perhaps even more crucial to the success.
The graphic designers who designed the beautiful posters, leaflets and programme. The nice ladies at the entrance and the registration desk who were always there to answer questions and solve problems. The men who afforded the magic translation boxes in exchange for your passport. The translators. And in short everyone who made this conference a success.
I suggest a warm applause fort hem.

When Raquel asked me whether I would like to close the conference the title just popped out of my brains: ‘Hope for the future’. The conference shows hope for all those interested in the history of strikes and social conflicts. Why I think so I will tell you a personal story. This story is illustrative of the development of our profession over the last four decades.

In 1972 a big strike broke out in the Netherlands in the metal industry. 30,000 Workers of shipyards and other metal Works demanded higher wages. They struck fora bout three weeks. I was a member of a Maoist group in Rotterdam which meant that I had to stand up early every morning to visit the wharfs. We distributed leaflets and had discussions with the strikers. I was still very young then (17 years old) so after visiting the metal works I went to school which started at nine.

When the strike was over I collected many newspaper clippings about the strike and all the leaflets from groups and organizations present.

In 1972 I also started the study of history at the State University of Leiden. Many students showed an interest in the history of strikes, the labour movement and unions. It was the aftermath of the 1968 movement and there was a feeling that popular movements were important in the shaping of society.

We read the books written by Friedrich Engels (not to mention his comrade), E.P. Thompson, Harry Braverman, Karl-Heinz Roth, Benjamin Coriat and many other theorists from the left-wing movement. I remember that we once organized a course on the History of the Unions movement which was attended by about one hundred students for weeks at a row. Even in the official curriculum there was room for Marxist economics and the study of class struggles. Teachers even promoted such study. We were all very enthusiastic and expected a socialist society or at least e more humane society to come out of the international process we saw developing. But this is not what happened.
The take over by Pinochet in Chile was initially only regarded as a minor drawing back. We thought the same about the rise of Margaret Thatcher during the winter of discontent and the offensive of Ronald Reagan against the striking air traffic controllers. We didn’t realize then that these were on the contrary signs of a change of paradigm as Naomi Klein has shown in her book Shock Therapy. Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan were the beginning of the right wing reaction and offensive after the left wing offensive during the sixties and seventies. Meanwhile I left the Maoist movement because of my new understanding of Leninism and Maoism as movements of intellectuals and peasants in rural societies. I became active in the anti nuclear movement (very actual in our days of problems with the nuclear plant in Japan after the earthquake) and a number of leftwing activities on al local level.

In the meantime I continued collecting paper clippings about strikes. They were stored in a card box.

In 1980 I changed profession. I was looking for a job and when I met a contractor in a bar he told me that I could start working with him. Maybe his remark was only meant to be provocative to a leftwing student, but anyhow I agreed. Within a few weeks I decided that I liked the job. After a beginning with only bearing I slowly learned the trade of a carpenter. I entered an entirely new way of living with hard manual and physical labour and more bars than demonstrations.

I also met Anneriet (the lady who is sitting in the back of this room right now) who became my wife and with whom I started a family. Family life with children meant visits to the zoo and attraction parks. I also continued reading newspapers and books about the development of society. The press bombarded society with euphoric stories about an economy with constant growth and a world without crises. Although not being politically active at the moment I was very skeptical about this so-called New Economy.  

In the meantime I continued collecting paper clippings about strikes. They were still stored in a card box.

In the mid-nineties it started to itch. The science of history was pulling me in again and the decision to write a thesis spoke for itself. My former professor at Leiden University (because of the withdrawal of the state as promoted by the neo liberals no longer called a State university, typical) supported me.
After a five year study I wrote the book Stakingen in Nederland. Arbeidersstrijd, 1830-1995 (Strikes in the Netherlands. Workers’struggles, 1830-1995). The International Institute of Social History published the book, but I sensed some strange feeling about my activities. The new generation at the university and the IISH didn’t seem to understand me and the older generation kept quiet.
When in 2000 I decided to quit the construction business and got a job at the IISH as some kind of foreman I finally realized what went wrong. In the years of absence I missed all kind of turns like the linguistic turn, all discussions about household strategies or the rational choice theory. Because I looked upon it from a distance I saw that all these more individualistic approaches in which there was no room for classes were all in line with neo liberalism. Margaret Thatcher’s remark that there is no such a thing as society had even entered academia.

In the meantime I continued collecting paper clippings about strikes. They were now stored in electronic form in a digital database.

The new historians must have regarded me as some kind of Dodo or Coelacanth; extinct since a long time but still breathing. But I didn’t mind. Knowing that society and history move forward in waves I was confident that it was just a matter of patience. When I bought a book about La historia de las Islas Canarias I learned that other historians on the globe than the westerners were still convinced of the reality of class and class struggle. Maybe the Dodo approach was only a Western thing?

Reality came to the rescue.

The Iraqi war led to massive demonstrations and so did the attacks guided by the Brussels bureaucracy on the schemes for old age pensions. These demonstrations were accompanied by massive strikes that proved that strikes and fighting for workers’ rights were not something of the past. This strengthened my idea that the history of strikes and social conflicts is not old-fashioned.

In the meantime I continued collecting paper clippings about strikes.

Working at the IISH I was allowed to visit the European Social Science History Conferences (ESSHC) to be held every two years. There I discovered that there were more Dodo’s like myself. In 2002 I met Dave Lyddon and a number of other fellow students of strikes and unions. When I issued a call for a workshop on strikes during the period since 1968 some of them came over to Amsterdam. A few years and many discussions and meetings later we published the book Strikes around the world (to be sold at the entrance of this conference!).
Some of the authors are also present at this conference Peter Birke, Linda Briskin, Heiner Dribbusch and Wessel Visser.

During the 2008 ESSHC here in Lisbon I met Raquel Varela who is also engaged in strike research. She sent me a contribution for the international repository on strikes and lockouts that I host at the website of the IISH (https://collab.iisg.nl/web/labourconflicts/about). One year later she invited me to organize a conference on strikes. We were a little worried about the number of people that would reply, so we extended the subject from strikes to ‘strikes and social conflicts’.

Maybe this was not necessary. More than 260 people replied. We feared that we wouldn’t be able to handle so much participants, so we had toe reject more than 80 proposals. Not so much for their quality but just to lower the numbers.
In the end we had about 150 colleagues that actually attended and about a hundred students who were interested in the subject and also came to one of the sessions.

There is one feature of this conference that disappointed me. I had hoped that more people would attend from unions or other activists. Now it was mostly an academic meeting where the subjects themselves were absent.
Apart from this I think the conference really was a success and a hope for the future. A future with more interest in the object of our study. A study that may be promoted by the increasing strike movement in the newly emerging economies such as the 2010 strike movement showed.

In the meantime I continue collecting paper clippings about strikes.

Thank you

By Sjaak van der Velden

At: Closing session International Conference Strikes and social conflicts XX century / Congreso Internacional greves e conflitos socials séc. XX, Friday March 18